Controversies in Medical Ecology

Medical ecology has been criticized by cultural anthropologists and by critical medical anthropologists, who argue that adaptation theory, or "adaptationism," is politically conservative. Believing that adaptation theory explains poor health as evidence of "inferior genes," some equate medical ecology to Social Darwinism. One positive outcome of this dialogue has been steps toward merging medical ecology and the political economy of health into a "political ecology of health." This developing subfield holds promise for future research.

A second area of controversy is whether ecological models and methods, derived from studies of animal populations, can be applied accurately to human populations, given the far-reaching influence of culture. The concept of carrying capacity is particularly problematic, in the sense that it has been difficult to demonstrate that human regulation of family size or of sex ratios in offspring is directly related to environmental resources (Smith & Smith, 1994).

Despite these criticisms, medical ecology remains promising in the study of health in rigorous environments in which the limits of human plasticity and cultural ingenuity are tested. Traditionally these environments were those of climatic and barometric extremes. In recent years, extreme outposts such as Antarctic research facilities, submarines, and space stations have posed new challenges of crowding, isolation, and boredom. The application of medical ecology in these settings may prove productive in future research.

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